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Profane Angel, Boss Bitch: The Madcap Badassery of Tragic Carole Lombard

[Originally published by Mind of LeVine on August 10, 2015.]

It all began with baseball.

In early 1921, film director Allan Dwan was casting A Perfect Crime when he noticed “a cute-looking little tomboy … out there knocking the hell out of the other kids, playing better baseball than they were. And [he] needed someone of her type for [the] picture.” [1]

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Her name was Jane Peters. She was 12 years old. And little baller Jane grew up to become 5 feet 2 inches of pure Tinseltown bulldozer. She became “The Hoosier Tornado,” “The Profane Angel” and “Hollywood’s hostess.” She became the screwball screen siren who sharked the studio system, loved paying taxes and died in a great ball of fire: Carole Lombard.

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Carole Lombard would’ve relished the term “Boss Bitch,” having embodied it well ahead of her time and loved her a damn swear. She gave no fucks long before that was a thing. And she was tough as nails, as evidenced by her superlative handling of a serious car crash in 1925, recounted 13 years later in Life magazine:

The impact shattered the windshield and a sliver of glass flew into Carole’s face, slitting it open from the corner of her nose to her cheekbone. … Stitched together by a surgeon who refrained from using an anesthetic less Carole relax her face muscles, the cut left an angry red scar. … For a promising movie actress it looked like a calamity. … Instead of ruining her career, the automobile accident was actually what started it. A director friend one day suggested that she get a job at the Sennett Studio where, since a quorum of the cast was always in bathing attire, facial defects made small difference. Carole Lombard took his advice and landed a job immediately. [2]

No anesthetic?!

I, too, was in a serious car wreck at age 17. Know how I handled it? I refused to drive for a decade. And I wasn’t even injured!

When Life ran the above-quoted “A Loud Cheer for the Screwball Girl” in 1938, Lombard was at the crest of her then-unprecedented financial and artistic power. But she was neither refined nor snobified by success. Ever true to her (carefully cultivated) frenetic wild-child persona, feature writer Noel F. Busch observed in the Life piece that:

She gets up too early, plays tennis too hard, wastes time and feeling on trifles and drinks Coca-Colas the way Samuel Johnson used to drink tea. She is a scribbler on telephone pads, inhibited nail-nibbler, toe-scuffler, pillow-grabber, head-and-elbow-scratcher and chain cigarette smoker. When Carole Lombard talks, her conversation, often brilliant, is punctuated by screeches, laughs, growls, gesticulations and the expletives of a sailor’s parrot. [3]

I revere this woman.

As to her wacky home life, gossip historian Anne Helen Petersen, Ph.D. cites the recollections of Madelyn Fields:

According to “Fieldsie,” Lombard’s secretary and close friend dating back to her Bathing Beauty days, Lombard’s … house never slept: the servants didn’t know when dinner might be, or what weird accent she would employ the next time she picked up the phone. Fieldsie also warned journalists not to venture into the yard, because it was never clear when Lombard might go out and shoot her BB gun at nothing in particular. [4]

Hilarious.

Lombard was also, in the words of Dr. Petersen, “celebrated for throwing the best, weirdest parties in town.” The good doctor elaborates:

At one such fete, she hid compressed air contraptions all around the house, which would blow up women’s skirts and dresses without warning, much to the delight of the male attendees. She publicly advised her fans to “be modern or else be a wallflower”… . [5]

Eventually eschewing gaudy Hollywood glamour for rustic Encino ranching, Lombard spent what proved to be the last years of her short life “raising chickens, pulling pranks, driving around in old jalopies” with Clark Gable [6], openly practicing her second-generation Bahá’í Faith [7] and giving Great Depression America the laughs it so desperately needed.

This was a woman who knew how to be happy. On her terms. As admirable a role model for “modern woman” as ever there was, I’ve so much to learn from her.

Carole Lombard was also, by the way, highly benevolent with her time, money and influence.

Commanding a spread of her fabulous pre-Gable Hollywood home in Architectural Digest, she publicly championed the burgeoning interior design career of gay silent star William Haines, whose irrepressible effeminacy had rendered him a casualty of the “talkies.” He went on to enjoy 40 years at the apex his second profession. [8]

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She finagled a Selznick acting contract for lowly Paramount secretary Margaret Tallichet (ultimate wife of the great filmmaker William Wyler), who later remembered Lombard as “kind and generous, unbelievably so. This combination of energy and generosity.” [9]

When Lombard’s tennis instructor told her about a star student who was suicidal after a TB diagnosis, Carole was moved to write the ailing ace a short letter:

Dear Alice,

You don’t know me, but your tennis teacher is also my teacher, and she has told me all about you. It really makes very little difference who I am, but once I thought I had a great career in front of me, just like you thought you had. Then one day I was in a terrible automobile accident. For six months I lay on a hospital bed, just like you are today. Doctors told me I was through, but then I began to think I had nothing to lose by fighting, so I began to fight. Well—I proved the doctors wrong. I made my career come true, just as you can—if you’ll fight.

Carole Lombard [10]

That ailing tennis ace was Alice Marble, future coach of Billie Jean King. In the combined words of Billie Jean and author Robert Matzen:

Said King, “Alice Marble was a picture of unrestrained athleticism. She is remembered as one of the greatest women to play the game because of her pioneering style in power tennis.” All of that had been made possible thanks to a whim by Carole Lombard to help a girl in a TB sanatorium. It was an act of kindness that rubbed off on Marble who, said Billie Jean, “always helped others.” [11]

Don’t you so want to hang with Carole?!

Yeah, as did everyone else.

Professionally speaking, she was an industry darling. The Fort Wayne native was described in a 2005 Indiana Post-Tribune article as “a natural prankster, a salty tongued straight-shooter, a feminist precursor and one of the few stars who was beloved by the technicians and studio functionaries who worked with her.” [12]

She famously preferred the company of crew to cast. That said, she also managed to marry both “Nick Charles” and “Rhett Butler,” which is quite the A-list man-haul. But I don’t want to dwell on her marriages to William Powell and Clark Gable.

Nor do I wish to discuss her acting, beyond making a quick #StacyStills point as to beautiful comediennes for the benefit of douche-spout ex-Disney honch Michael Eisner, who recently averred that such things are “impossible to find.” [13]

Kiss riotous Carole’s perfect ass, Eisner:

Twentieth Century [1934]

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My Man Godfrey [1936]

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Nothing Sacred [1937]

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Madcap Carole sucked so much marrow out of life in 33 years that it’s hard to write about her without veering off to Tangentville. I could go on and on, for my Lombard love knows no bounds. But ultimately, I’m just here to dish on her badassery and Boss Bitchery, both of which were mighty.

In 1937, riding the wave of My Man Godfrey’s runaway success the year before, Carole Lombard became Hollywood’s highest-paid actor in a widely-publicized deal that smacked the oh-so-deserving studio system upside the damn head. As detailed by Dr. Petersen:

Paramount moved to re-up her long-term contract. But Lombard, with the help of her agent, Myron Selznick, pulled a fast one, leveraging her value toward a nonexclusive deal with both Paramount and Selznick International Pictures. … The terms were unheard of: three pictures a year at $150,000 apiece, along with control over all aspects of the Lombard image. She could choose the cinematographer, the director, even the supporting cast—not to mention her fashion designer and still photographer. She had final say over every publicity still that left the studio lot, plus tight control over the type and number of publicity stories published about her. If all this sounds a lot like a contemporary celebrity contract, that’s because it is—and Lombard had it years before the rest of the industry transitioned to the “free agent” model of stardom. [14]

Boss Bitch, I tell ya!

That same year, Photoplay magazine ran a profile of Lombard titled “How I Live by a Man’s Code.” Early in the interview, feature writer Hart Seymore slings her an appalling question: “What’s your secret—how do you get along so well in a man’s world?” [15]

Carole rips him a new one:

Because I don’t believe it’s a man’s world. A woman has just as much right in this world as a man, and can get along in it just as well if she puts her mind to it. Take business—that’s supposed to be a man’s province. Yet I can name you the most outstanding success in the life of the movies and that person is a woman: Mary Pickford. You can’t match her. She’s supreme in every department. … As a matter of fact, women have an advantage in business. Men are so secure in their belief that they are supreme in business that they are often caught napping by alert women. Man thinks he’s dealing with an inferior brain when it comes to woman, and that makes him a sucker. Furthermore, women have a highly developed sense of intuition that’s just as valuable as hardheaded logic. [16]

Anti-damsel mic drop!

Discussing her $465,000 payday—an amount more than five times FDR’s Depression-era POTUS salary [17]—Lombard assured the press that 80% of it would go to taxes, which was mad cool by her:

I enjoy this country. I like the parks and the highways and the good schools and everything that this government does. After all, every cent anybody pays in taxes is spent to benefit him. I don’t need $465,000 a year for myself, so why not give what I don’t need to the government for improvements of the country. There’s no better place to spend it. [18]

She scored a personal thank you note from FDR for that one. [19] And, seven years later, she scored an even higher civilian honor. Posthumously.

Sigh.

Following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s declarations of war in the subsequent days, Washington turned straight to LaLa Land for help. Per Dr. Petersen:

Hollywood was the first to be enlisted for service on the “home front,” collaborating with the government in a wide-reaching program that covered everything from the production of training films to slight modifications to forthcoming movies, such as Casablanca [1942], to incite broad citizen support for the war. And as had been the case during World War I, prominent stars were put to work touring the country and selling war bonds… . [20]

At the time, anti-Nazi comedy To Be or Not to Be [1942] (which was to be Lombard’s final film) was in post-production, speeding toward a sneak preview scheduled for Monday, January 19. Having finished shooting, Carole was available for an immediate bond tour. [21]

She would never see the film.

Mr. Matzen explains celebrity bond tours:

Bond tours could be easily accomplished with a star on hiatus between pictures. Home cities and home states would welcome the returning stars, and funds would be raised for the war effort. Hollywood’s elite would become barnstormers. The idea caught fire in a day and Washington made one thing clear: No star could travel by air because of the vulnerability of airplanes in general and the susceptibility to sabotage in particular. (emphasis mine) [22]

The tragic truth about Carole Lombard’s badassery and Boss Bitchery is that they got her killed.

The fatal bond tour is well documented but still not definitively understood, despite no shortage of speculation over the decades. If you’re interested specifically in this, the morbid part of Lombard’s story (which I unabashedly am), I recommend the Matzen book I’ve been quoting, Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3.

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I won’t be going into those details here because they’re inextricably entwined with the Clark Gable tangent, and this essay is not about men (or man-eating gun molls named Lana Turner). But these are the final hits, runs and errors of little baller Jane:

Accompanied by her mother and press agent, Carole Lombard left Hollywood on January 12, 1942, bound by train for her native Indiana. [23] On January 15, she barnstormed her way across the state. By the time she reached Indianapolis at the end of the day, she had raised a jaw-dropping $2 million for the nascent war effort. [24]

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She then impulsively decided she could not endure a three-day train ride back to Hollywood. Lecherous hubby Gable was on set with the man-eating gun moll, and she needed to get home. Stat. [25]

True to her badass nature, Lombard flouted Washington’s air travel warning and boarded a flight out of Indianapolis in the wee hours of January 16, her reluctant mother and press agent in tow. [26] True to her Boss Bitch power, she had three U.S. Army Air Corpsmen bumped from TWA Flight 3 in order to manage it. [27]

Minutes after refueling in Las Vegas, the plane crashed into “Double Up Peak” on Potosi Mountain. There were no survivors. [28]

For her contribution to the war effort and very public patriotism, Liberty Ship #2557 was christened the USS Carole Lombard on January 15, 1944. [29]

Clark Gable was there to launch her in full dress uniform, having enlisted for combat amidst punishing grief (guilt?) over his wife’s death. By all accounts, including the look of him in post-war films, he never recovered from the loss. [30]

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Of the myriad tributes to little baller Jane in the wake of her banner headline demise, my favorite is from Hollywood tough guy George Raft, her co-star in Bolero [1934]:

“I truly loved Carole Lombard. She was the greatest girl that ever lived and we were the best of pals. Completely honest and outspoken, she was liked by everyone.” (emphasis mine) [31]

What more badass a thing can any one person be?

@IvyLawEditor#StacyStills


ENDNOTES

[1] Gehring, Wes D. (2003). Carole Lombard: The Hoosier Tornado. Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana Historical Society Press. pp. 27–28.

[2] Busch, N. F. (1938, Oct.). “A Loud Cheer for the Screwball Girl”. Life, Vol. V No. 16, pp. 62-63.

[3] Ibid., 48-50.

[4] Petersen, Anne Helen. (2014). Scandals of Classic Hollywood. New York, New York: PLUME by the Penguin Group. p. 125.

[5] Ibid., p. 124.

[6] Ibid., p. 113.

[7] “Carol Lombard Gable”. The Bahá’í World: A Biennial International Record. Bahá’í Pub. Committee. 1981 [1945]. pp. 635–637.

[8] Matzen, Robert (2014). Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: GoodKnight Books. p. 72.

[9] Ibid., p. 107.

[10] Ibid., p. 73.

[11] Ibid., pp. 334-335.

[12] Gordon, Jim (May 1, 2005). “Fort Wayne home to ‘Profane Angel’”. The Post-Tribune, accessed via HighBeam Research (subscription required).

[13] THR Staff. “Former Disney Chief Michael Eisner: A Woman Who Is Funny and Beautiful Is ‘Impossible to Find’”. The Hollywood Reporter, 03 July 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/disney-chief-michael-eisner-a-806748.

[14] Petersen 2014, pp. 127-128.

[15] Seymore, H. (1937, June). “Carol Lombard: How I Live By a Man’s Code”. Photoplay, Vol. II No. 6, p. 13.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ott, Frederick W. (1972). The Films of Carole Lombard. Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press. p. 9.

[18] Haver, Ronald (1980). David O. Selznick’s Hollywood. London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd. p. 214.

[19] Swindell, Larry (1975). Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. New York, New York: William Morrow & Company. p. 232.

[20] Petersen 2014, p. 131.

[21] Matzen 2014, p. 146.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Matzen 2014, p. 147.

[24] Petersen 2014, pp. 131-132.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Matzen 2014, p. 164.

[27] Ibid., pp. 191-194.

[28] Ibid., pp. 165-167.

[29] Associated Press, 15 Jan. 1944. Web. 15 Aug. 2015, accessed via http://dearmrgable.com/?p=1957.

[30] Petersen 2014, pp. 131-134.

[31] Yablonsky, Lewis. (2000). George Raft. iUniverse. p. 95.

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